The Age of the Spirit
By Jewel Showalter
CHANGI COVE, Singapore: It wasn't an ordinary annual meeting for the International Missions Association (IMA), but a grand joint assembly with more than 60 alumni and students of Bethany International University (BIU) August 26-Sept. 2 at Changi Cove, in Singapore.
Students trained at BIU serve in the Asia Pacific Mission (APM), one of the 22 member organizations of the IMA, an association of Anabaptist mission bodies established for prayer, mutual support, and partnering in the task of world missions.
Celebrating 20 years since their founding, APM/BIU hosted the annual IMA gathering and the Holy Spirit in Mission Conference with a gracious, Singaporean flair, enveloping the IMA in their own anniversary reports, teaching, and equipping sessions.
As he introduced APM/BIU in first-day opening ceremonies, Dr. E. S. Isaiah, president of BIU and director of APM, said, “Integrating the redemptive heart of God for the restoration of fallen man in the most contextualized and culturally sensitive ways – that's what we're all about.”
He went on to introduce the mission of the school 1) to train trainers to multiply national workers and trainers, 2) to prepare cross-cultural missionaries who are planting churches among unreached peoples, and 3) to equip “tentmakers” to multiply disciples in restricted access countries.
He reported that in the past 20 years BIU has trained trainers in 20 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. They are offering this “leadership development” opportunity to all IMA members – giving members the privilege of sending leaders to be trained in the masters' level training program that is built on the foundational philosophy of 1) hearing God's vision 2) living by faith and trusting God for provision, and 3) developing Christ-like character.
The three-part training which focuses on academic development, spiritual development, and ministry skills competency is offered free of charge to students who are accepted into the program. One student from an IMA member organization is currently enrolled and three more from other member agencies are being considered for admittance.
Stories, reports, prayer requests, and ministry times spilled out as the groups flowed together in worship, teaching sessions, fasting, prayer, and country reports.
Dr. Winston Elliot, one of about 30 adjunct faculty who augment the work of BIU's eight core faculty members, spoke the opening day on what he called “the age of the Spirit.” Borrowing from Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith, Elliot said church history can be divided into three ages – the age of faith (early church to Constantine), the age of belief (Constantine to the 20th Century) and the age of the Spirit (20th Century to the present.)
Elliot explained that in the transition from the age of faith to the age of belief the clergy became professionalized and took the Bible away from the common people. “Western Christianity bought into the 'age of belief','” Elliot said, adding that the Protestant Reformation did not significantly alter this phenomenon.
By way of illustration he said that in many modern translations, Greek words such as brother, disciple, and saint often got translated as “believer” – further emphasizing the role of belief and the mind.
“But now we're in the 'age of the Spirit', and we really don't know what is taking place!” Elliot said. He cited humble, often uneducated men and women who have led powerful revival movements in Indonesia and China during the past century.
“They have defined the transition from the age of belief to the age of the Spirit,” Elliot said. “The greatest move of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost has taken place in China. The leaders were ordinary people, without formal training, but they walked in the Spirit. It was a 'bottom up' movement.”
Throughout the week, speakers focused on the theme of “Hearing and Obeying the Holy Spirit in Mission.”
As IMA president Yesaya Abdi introduced the week he said, “May this be a week of spiritual awakening for us. The IMA is not just about organization or entertainment. We've come with Samuel's spirit – 'Lord, speak to me.'” They were not disappointed.
Gerbole Herpa, a guest from Ethiopia, shared stories of his faith walk in pioneering new church plants in Ethiopia. Once he visited an unchurched community and God told him to begin by walking around and preaching to the sheep and the shepherds. By faith he took stones and marked out the site of a future church. Today the community has a church of more than 300 – with seven pastors.
Another day after preaching in a community he received a gift of 1,500 Ethiopian birr. He has six children so was grateful to have the funds for household needs. But on the way home God instructed him to give the money to two other needy families. He obeyed even though that meant he didn't have sufficient funds for transport home. As he stood by the road with his empty pockets, a van came along and transported him home – and then after he'd been home, praying for 30 minutes for food for his children, the manager of the bank came with a gift of 10,000 Ethiopian birr. He said an angel had appeared and told him to give the money to Gerbole.
“If we obey God in the small things, he can bless us in a major way,” Gerbole said. He added that he had wanted to come to the IMA meeting in Singapore if he could pay his own ticket. He reserved a ticket, in faith, and just two days before he left, God provided him with the necessary funds. Years ago when he stepped out to live like this he said God asked him, “Do you want to have a salary every 30 days, or have me provide for you every day?”
In his testimony, Antonio Ulloa, a staff member from Eastern Mennonite Missions who served as an English-Spanish translator for Spanish-speaking participants, emphasized that prayer is not just about asking for things and receiving. “As we grow in our faith, we hear God speak. We become active participants with God as we hear and obey.”
Dr. Tan Kok Beng, CEO of APM, summarized the theme of hearing from God: 1) it is the worshiper who hears the Spirit clearly; 2) the Spirit is Lord of the harvest and calls his people to missions; 3) Pentecost is all about missions; 4) God sets apart the best and the most gifted for missions. “Christians have no right to be anything else but missionaries unless God releases them,” Kok Beng said.
During a full day of fasting and prayer, participants clustered in small groups for prayer – pouring out personal needs as well as prayer burdens.
As a North American poured out her burden for the Somali people, Kenyan and Ethiopian prayer group members responded humbly, “Don't worry about Somalia. We're picking up the challenge. The Somalis are our neighbors. We can reach them more easily than you can.” They proceeded to share stories of ministry in the region. Together the group interceded for the Somali people and those working among them.
Later the groups gathered in regional clusters to pray for challenges such as escalating violence in Latin America. Adalio Romero, president of the Honduran Mennonite Church reported that a gang in San Pedro Sula had killed two of the Mennonite leaders and one of their churches lost 30 members because of the violence. People are afraid to send their children to school.
In Asia the group reported growing tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. They asked for increased unity among the Christians as they face their own pressures from the aggressive, nationalist Buddhist community.
In Africa there is a growing vision for the many unreached tribal groups within reach of the existing churches – yet tribalism continues to be a pressing barrier and problem for the churches.
Peter Xu, an elder statesmen from the house churches of China, currently lives in the U.S., and has attended IMA meetings since 2007. In his remarks during the day of prayer and fasting, Xu spoke of the refining fires the Chinese churches have walked through. “The church was refined. The wood, hay, and stubble burned. There were no church buildings left,no pastors, no money, no hope. Only a pure heart was left. We became like the early church in Acts. We counted the cost and accepted the challenge. To suffer is beneficial so we can learn the righteousness of God.”
In 1964 Xu responded to God's call to begin assembling people again in homes and open fields. “We realized the church needed to care for its children so we began founding training centers,” he said. “Yet as young people moved out in mission they were arrested. When I came to help them I was arrested. In one location we were arrested ten times. But when the local people saw the persistence of the young missionaries, they wanted to know who Jesus is, and many became Christians. The joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering – this is our strength.”
Today Xu continues to equip Chinese missionaries for pioneering service both inside China and beyond its borders.
As the group continued to ponder the task of world missions, Penn Clark, an IMA member from Word of Grace Network, in New York, differentiated between being baptized by the Holy Spirit, the birthright of every believer, and being filled or inspired by the Holy Spirit for life-changing, game-changing moments of ministry. “We don't need a great outpouring, but momentary obedience to the Spirit's promptings,” he said. “God limits himself to cooperating with man. Angels can't do it. There is no Plan B. Can we be – 'a reed shaken in the wind?'”
In teaching on “The Urgency of Missions,” Dr. Isaiah said simply, “The secret of reaching the unreached with the love of God is John 5:19 – “do what we see the Father doing.”
God continued to cleanse, empower, and unite as the group shared the Lord's supper together on the last day of the Holy Spirit in Mission Conference. Wanting nothing to hinder the flow of the Spirit for the blessing of the nations, Carlos Marin Montoyo, president of Amor Viviente (AV), in Honduras, publicly asked forgiveness from Adalio Romero, the president of the Honduras Mennonite Church, for the ways AV had offended them.
“Brother, you are forgiven,” Romero responded, and the two IMA member groups pledged to walk in new fellowship as they collaborate for mission in Honduras and beyond.
“After hearing all the testimonies and lectures we are amazed by the quality of what is happening here at BIU,” Yesaya Abdi, IMA president, said. “I'm going to encourage IMA members to send more people here for training. We need more BIU's. We came expecting to be renewed – and we have been!”
As IMA members gathered for business and reports after the conference, IMA executive committee member, Henry Mulandi, said “Hearing about walking by faith and this whole experience with BIU has been a 'burning bush' experience for me. It's been a deep learning experience. I learn best when I hear about others who are working in similar tasks.”
Recognizing what a benefit the annual IMA meetings have been, the group pledged to shoulder more of the costs. Tetty Sinulingga, a pastor and church planter from Indonesia, said, “How can we change our beggars' bowls into bread baskets? We've begged too long.”